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Monday, December 23, 2013

On Billards and Chess; Interview with VooFoo Studios

Interview by Matt S.

One of the indie studios that has impressed us the most in recent years has been VooFoo Studios, who has been able to take simple but proven, traditional games, and polish them to the brightest sheen possible for the video game medium.

What we've seen with both Pure Chess and Hustle Kings is that VooFoo knows how to make games that not only look great, but play like near-perfect recreations of their real-world equivalents. We've been keen to understand what drives the team to bring such production values to such simple games for some time, so we've had a chat with VooFoo's Creative Producer, Shaun Read, to gain his insights to the team and their work.

With Pure Chess on track to launch on the Wii U shortly, and Pure Pool on the way to the PlayStation 4, this is a team worth watching into the future, too. They've not run out of ideas by any means.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): Your games have developed the reputation for having spectacular visuals despite being quite simple games such as Pool and Chess. Why do you consider the visual style so important?
Shaun Read (SR): With so many studios out there making so many great games, we’ve always felt it essential to stand out from the crowd. It’s true that the games we’ve developed so far are relatively simple in their subject matter, but the fact that we spend so much time and effort labouring over their visual quality make them far from simple games to make. The guys here at VooFoo are obsessed by creating games that look as close to the real thing as possible and we’re proud of the fact that our products have become associated with class-leading visuals.

DD: You've also picked games that are notoriously difficult to provide a great experience around - the physics required to get a good game of pool going, and the AI of Chess are both challenging from a development point of view. How have you tackled these challenges?
SR: It’s easy to dismiss games such a pool and chess as simplistic but as you point out, balancing the AI and physics of such titles can be an extremely complicated and lengthy process. To make a perfect AI pool or chess player isn’t actually that hard in itself, to make one that’s fallible and that has believable traits is a totally different challenge. Chess in particular has an incredibly loyal and passionate following and experienced players will very quickly pick up on odd or unnatural AI behaviour. We actually went as far as to get a Chess Grand Master in to playtest the harder difficult levels of Pure Chess. The feedback was essential to create believable AI and happily the computer still managed to win the odd game!

DD: Have you ever been inspired to take on more modern games - a modern board game like Catan or a more mainstream sport, for instance?
SR: We’ve talked about how much we strive to make our games look as visually impressive as possible. There are many types of games we would consider making as long as we had the scope to flex our graphical muscle and continue to make our products stand out from the crowd. While we’ve enjoyed making all of our games so far, we don’t want to be typecast as a ‘parlour game’ specialist. We believe we have the talent and experience to bring the ‘VooFoo’ look to many different gaming genres and are very excited to explore the possibilities.

DD: Your games also build up loyal communities around them; why do you think that has happened?
SR: I think we can only put this down to the type of games we make. Chess and pool certainly have loyal legions of followers who are often the type of gamer who like being part of communities and enjoy talking about their experiences. What we would like to do in the future is to concentrate more on building these communities by making our LIVE experience as streamlined and rewarding as possible.

DD: You've had a steady release schedule that has seen Pure Chess ported to a new platform on a regular basis. With so many people owning multiple gaming platforms has it concerned you that the audience might not be there for these later ports? Why, why not?
SR: To be honest, not really. Our ultimate aim has to be to make our games available to as many players as possible. Our development methods mean that to convert, say, Pure Chess to a different platform requires a fraction of the work-load that creating the game in the first place takes. Developing for platforms with unique features obviously takes longer. Take the Wii U for example, we saw the dual-screen technology as an ideal opportunity to create bespoke features for that platform. This obviously takes more development time but as long as the increase in the possible customer base outweighs the time and cost of making the conversion, we’re always more than happy to broaden the reach of our games.

DD: Which platforms have you found to be the best to work on from a developer point of view?
SR: Each platform offers its own unique challenges but we would have to say working with the new PlayStation 4 has so far been a joy. The tools allow us to compile builds and iterate on gameplay faster than ever before. The artists obviously love the new graphical horsepower and from a design perspective, the controller provides some interesting and unique gameplay possibilities.

DD: How do you see the next generation of consoles playing out from a design point of view? Are you looking forward to playing with some of the advanced cloud features/ second screen experiences, and so forth?
SR: It’s always exciting to develop games for a new console. Our artists for example are having all kinds of fun trying to slow the new machines down (they’ve not succeeded yet, but give them time!). As previously mentioned, our current games lend themselves very nicely to the possibilities bought by multi-screen technology and it’s certainly an area that we’ll be exploring. The new DualShock 4 controller is also a very interesting piece of kit that’s allowing us to deepen the user-experience in cool and interesting ways.

DD: Where would you like to see VooFoo grow in the future?
SR: I think we feel it’s time to spread our wings a little. As previously mentioned, we’ve loved every minute of making our games so far but at the same time, we feel like we have much more to offer. I’m not suggesting that we’re about to embark on a AAA, Call of Duty beating FPS, I guess what I’m saying is that we’d maybe like to surprise existing VooFoo fans a little and hopefully attract a whole bunch of new ones!

DD: What advice would you have for someone looking to set up their own independent studio?
SR: After joining VooFoo on the back of having to unfortunately close my own indie studio, I guess I can answer this with at least some life experience. Set realistic goals, surround yourself with talented, like-minded people, don’t underestimate the value of industry contacts and marketing, don’t rush to expand, don’t dismiss the need for reliable financial backing, stand out from the crowd, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and don’t spend too much time on a single idea (if it’s a good idea, you won’t have to). Oh, and buy decent coffee.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
SR: After throwing the question around the office… Matt’s working on world domination in Civ 5 while Mark’s been sailing the seven seas in Assassins Creed – Black Flag on his shiny new PS4. Sam is staring glassy-eyed at everything on his PS4 (and he does literally have everything!) and I’m completely addicted to 8-Ball Pool on my iPhone. I’m rather proud of my level 26 rating I can tell you!

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
On Billards and Chess; Interview with VooFoo Studios
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